Sunday Notes: Baez, Jankowski, Hughes, Opening Day, more

Javier Baez has been burdened by strikeouts. The promising young Cub has a 38.5% k-rate and an 18.5% swinging strike rate in 309 big-league plate appearances. There were a plethora of whiffs in the minors as well, so his contact issues extend beyond the expected MLB learning curve.

Baez has plus power, especially for a middle infielder. He hit 37 home runs between high-A and Double-A in 2013, and a year later he went deep 23 times in 434 Triple-A at bats.

Reaching the bleachers isn’t his primary goal.

“I’m not trying to hit for power,” Baez told me this spring. “I’m just trying to make contact, and if it goes over the fence, fine. I’m trying to hit the ball hard.”

Hitting it at all has been a challenge, and the 23-year-old former first-round pick is aware of his deficiencies. Ironing them out is the hurdle. In his eyes, mechanics aren’t the problem.

“Ninety percent of it is mental,” said Baez. “I need to be patient and look for a better pitch to hit, and I need to get used to using the whole field. Baseball is about making adjustments. I need to do get better at that, and I feel I am.”

As for his strikeout rate and the criticism he’s received on account of it, he’s not losing any sleep over either.

“I don’t really care about what people think about my swing,” said Baez. “It’s my swing. No matter what they say, they’re not going to hit for me. I’m just giving my good — I’m giving it my thing — and trying to get better.

“I don’t pay attention to strikeouts. They’re just part of the game and there’s nothing I can do about that. What I have on my mind is to hit the ball, and what the pitcher has in his mind is to strike me out. One of us has to win. We’ll see what happens this season.”

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Travis Jankowski added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame over the offseason. The objective wasn’t more power — he told Padres beat writer Dennis Lin it was about better surviving the rigors of a long season — but he wouldn’t mind some longer drives. Jankowski has just five home runs since San Diego selected him 44th overall in the 2012 draft out of Stony Brook.

“Hopefully,” responded Jankowski when I asked if we might see a few more dingers down the road. ”It would be nice if they came into my game, but as of right now, my role is to get on base and let the bigger guys drive me in.”

Jankowski set plenty of tables last year between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso. Swinging from the left side, he slashed .335/.413/.425 and earned his first-league call-up. He had 19 hits in 90 at bats after joining the Padres, including a pair of home runs.

I asked the 24-year-old outfielder if his swing would need to change in order for him to hit for more power.

“I don’t think the swing, per se,” answered Jankowski. “Maybe the path a little bit. A lot of guys are more steep to the ball to create that backspin. My hands are pretty flat through the zone, which allows me to have better bat-to-ball contact, but not as much power. I’m not too concerned about that. That’s not me as a baseball player. I’m more about speed.”

Jankowski, who earned a spot on San Diego’s 25-man roster this spring, had 34 stolen bases last year. In 2013, he had 71 steals in high-A.

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Phil Hughes describes his year-to-year pitch mix this way:

“I’ve had the same four pitches for a long time. It’s just a matter of how I distribute them.”

The Twins right-hander anticipates throwing more changeups. It’s been his least-used offering, although there was a slight uptick last season. As Hughes told me in Fort Myers, “I was probably around 5%, but while that’s not a ton, I think I threw five total in 2014.”

Hughes — who throws his change with “kind of a split grip” — has his pitching coach in his ear.

Neil Allen is a big proponent of the changeup,” explained Hughes. “His theory is to throw it a lot, and in situations that aren’t expected. He’s big on throwing it back-to-back, right-on-right… in any situation, to any hitter. If you want to simplify his philosophy, I’d say it’s ‘Throw it whenever.’”

A more-effective changeup could help him rebound from a so-so season. His velocity was down last year, which helped contribute to a 4.40 ERA and a career-low 5.45 strikeout rate. Hughes hopes to get his heater “back to where it was” and sees no reason he shouldn’t. When I jokingly asked if the velocity drop was due to old age, he laughed and said, “I don’t think so. Gosh, I’m only 29.”

It’s true. Despite heading into his tenth big-league season, the Minnesota righty won’t turn 30 until June. You’re excused if you thought Hughes was north of that by at least a few years.

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I was one of two FanGraphs writers (Brandon Warne was the other) to predict that Arizona will win the National League West this year. The likelihood of that happening took a big hit when AJ Pollock went down with an elbow injury on Friday. Is it still possible? Probably not. Few teams can afford to lose one of their best players.

That said, the Diamondbacks are still a talented team, and I have reservations as to just how good the Dodgers and Giants are. Bruce Bochy might be the best manager in the game, and Los Angeles has some shiny pieces. Even so, both teams are flawed.

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OPENING DAY FACTOIDS

Frank Robinson has the most opening day home runs, 8. Jimmy Key has the most opening day wins without a loss, 7.

Hank Aaron hit his 714th home run on opening day, in 1974.

Mike Parrott was the winning pitcher for Seattle on opening day in 1980. Parrott finished that season with a record of 1-16.

Boston’s Dwight Evans homered on the first pitch thrown in the 1986 season. He did so against Jack Morris, at Tiger Stadium. (Personal note: I was in a basement office at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and heard legendary announcer Ernie Harwell’s call on the radio.)

Dan McGinn hit the first home run in Montreal Expos history — and the only one of his career — on opening day in 1969. The left-handed pitcher went deep against Tom Seaver, at Shea Stadium.

On April 16, 1940, Cleveland’s Bob Feller threw the only opening day no-hitter in history. “Bullet Bob” — just 21 years old at the time — beat the White Sox 1-0 at Comiskey Park. The temperature at game time was barely above freezing.

The Phillies won on opening day in 1907 when the home team, the New York Giants, forfeited the game. Play was stopped in the eighth inning when snowball-throwing fans got a little too out of hand.

On opening day 1926, Walter Johnson threw a 15-inning complete game as the Washington Senators beat the Philadelphia Athletics 1-0. The losing pitcher, Eddie Rommel, also threw a complete game.

One year earlier — opening day 1925 — Eddie Rommel pitched a scoreless inning of relief and was the winning pitcher as the Athletics beat the Red Sox 6-5, in 10 innings. Philadelphia’s starting pitcher that day was Lefty Grove, who was making his major league debut.

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Getting your feet wet in the big leagues isn’t simple. That’s especially true for catchers. Along with acclimating to new surroundings while keeping their emotions in check, they need to take charge of a pitching staff. John Hicks experienced that first-hand last year.

Hicks, who has since signed with the Twins, was called up by the Mariners in late August. Commanding respect and avoiding paralysis by analysis were among his first orders of business.

“There’s a lot more information in big-league meetings,” Hicks told me earlier this spring. “You have more information on what hitters struggle with, their averages in counts — things you don’t get as much of in the minors — and you have to take it all in.”

“You try to be the brains for the guy on the mound so he can just simplify and pitch. Hopefully you’ve built up enough rapport that he believes in you and trusts what you put down. You kind of script how you’re planning to get guys out, and if the game shows you something different, you adjust.”

Making adjustments on the fly is old hat for veteran catchers. It’s challenging when squatting behind a big-league dish is a new experience.

“I think everybody has to (learn to slow things down).,” said Hicks “As a catcher, you can’t be back there with your head racing, wondering ‘How am I going to get this guy out?’ At times, you kind of have to snap your fingers and get yourself locked back in. You have to catch the ball before you do anything else.”

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A number of players will make their MLB debuts in the coming days. Byron Browne played his first game five decades ago. He did so with the Chicago Cubs in an experience befitting a Hollywood script.

“It was September 7, 1965,” remembered Browne. “I was with Triple-A Salt Lake City and came from Indianapolis to LA. When I got to the LA airport, the clubhouse man picked me up. He congratulated me and said, ‘You’re in the game tonight.’ I asked, ‘Who’s pitching?” He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Then he drove me to the Biltmore Hotel.

Billy Williams was my roommate. He said, ‘Leave your baggage here; I’m going to take you out and show you Dodger Stadium.’ By the way, ‘You’re in the game tonight.’ I asked, ‘Who’s pitching?’ He said, ‘Man, don’t even worry about it. You’re in the big leagues.’

“They had that weird announcer there. When we got on the field, he said in this deep, slow voice, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, get your scorecards ready for tonight’s game. Leading off for the Chicago Cubs…’ and he goes through our lineup. I was hitting sixth. Then it was, ‘Leading off for the Dodgers, Maury Wills.’ When he got to the end, it was, ‘Pitching for your Los Angeles Dodgers, Sandy Koufax.’

“He threw a perfect game. Bob Henley pitched for us, threw a one-hitter and lost on an error. Not only that, the Watts riots had been happening. LA was burning. That was my first game.”

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Ryan O’Rourke was called up to the big leagues for the first time last July. The unheralded Twins left-hander shared those memories in a recent interview with New England Baseball Journal. Here is an excerpt:

“I called my father. That’s one of the most special moments I’ll ever have. We’d played a night game, so it was late, at least 11 o’clock. He picked up and I think I got two words out before I broke down a little bit. I think he thought the worst — your son calls and he’s crying. I said, ‘Dad, I made it.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Minnesota. Book a flight.”

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

On this date in 1989, 19-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. doubled off Dave Stewart in his first big-league at bat.

In Hank Aaron’s first MLB game, on April 13, 1954, he faced Cincinnati southpaw Joe Nuxhall. Aaron was 20 years old. Ten years earlier, on June 10, 1944, Nuxhall made his MLB debut with the Reds. He was 15 years old.

In his two injury-free seasons (2013 and 2015), Manny Machado has averaged 40 doubles and 25 home runs. The most doubles Brooks Robinson hit in a single season was 38. The most home runs he hit in a single season was 28.

Dana Eveland will begin this season in the Tampa Bay bullpen. In 2013, the journeyman left-hander played in Korea and went 6-14 with a 5.54 ERA. His team, the Hanwha Eagles, hit 47 home runs. From 2013-2015, Byung Ho Park averaged 47 home runs a season with the Nexen Heroes.

Ichiro Suzuki heads into the season with 2, 935 hits, the same number as Barry Bonds.

Per Mike Petriello (and Statcast), Kevin Kiermaier played 24 feet deeper than Anthony Gose last season.

The Red Sox and Blue Jays played exhibition games in Montreal on Friday and Saturday. Attendance for the two games was 106,102.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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maumanntsmember
6 years ago

Minor quibble: Henry Aaron’s 714th was off of Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham in his first at-bat in the 1974 season-opener. He hit No. 715 off Downing at home four days later.